If you've done a little homework on how to dress, you've probably seen or heard this advice a thousand times: dress in layers. From spring to early fall in Alaska, be prepared for temperatures in the 50-70 degree range, always with the possibility of a little rain and wind thrown in there. Your best bet is to dress in layers and bring a backpack—you'll stay warm and dry when it's chilly or wet, and you can peel off layers and stow them as the weather changes.
Rain or shine, many day tours—flightseeing, cruises, bus tours—offer access to shelter. And while you may spend 2-3 hours outdoors hiking, fishing, or rafting, you can generally expect that your tour operator will provide any specialized gear you need. However, it is always good to be prepared.
A Breakdown of Necessary Layers
The Inner Layer
The inner layer is what we think of as long underwear, such as Capilene from Patagonia, or any other thin material that absorbs moisture from your skin. On a hot day, you can also wear this alone instead of a cotton shirt—it'll dry much more quickly. The only drawback is that some of these materials also absorb odor, so you might consider buying new stuff before coming up. If you’re just walking around town or enjoying the ship’s deck, there’s no need for specialized active-wear. But you might be more comfortable if you pick up a few basics at a sporting goods store.
The Insulating Layer
The middle insulating layer could be expedition-weight long underwear, a fleece jacket, or even a sweater. Synthetic materials usually have the edge over wool or cotton because of their lightness and warmth.
The Outer Layer
The outer layer is the one you really need to get right. You want a shell that's waterproof and breathable to stay warm when it's windy and dry when it's rainy. These thin, outer jackets can be tucked into in the outer compartments of your suitcase and should be fully waterproof. In my experience, water-resistant clothing only delays the inevitable. Brand doesn’t matter matters much, but an outer shell made of Gore-Tex® material (including a hood) will keep a wet day from turning into a miserable one. If you’re going to be doing any hiking or kayaking, pick up a pair of nylon pants (some have zip-off legs to convert to shorts) so that your legs will dry faster if you get rained on or splashed. Synthetic fabrics have the added perk of being pretty wrinkle-proof, so you can roll them up tight in your bags.
Bring a lightweight, brimmed hat for sun and rain, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Interestingly, the intensity of the sun in Alaska on a peak summer day is probably equivalent to a spring day in the Lower 48, because of the lower angle of the sun in the subarctic regions. But due to the long summer days, there are twice as many hours of daylight, so you definitely want to protect your skin.
Even on a warm summer day, it can get pretty chilly when your ship pulls up to a glacier. While you won’t need a parka or anything winter-weight, a cheap pair of thin gloves will be worthwhile. If anything, you’ll be able to spend more time out on deck taking great photos.
Never bring new shoes to Alaska—you’ll be walking a lot, and don’t need blisters. I’d rather see you in old tennis shoes that are well-worn than fancy boots that have never been taken out of the box. If you want waterproofing, look for Gore-Tex socks that can slip over your regular, non-cotton socks. If you're going to invest in hiking shoes, we advise against old-fashioned heavy hiking boots. They're heavy, stiff, and can cause blisters. Instead, get yourself a comfortable pair of lightweight hikers with good traction—two pairs, actually, in case one gets wet. And break them in before you come!